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Snapshot of sustainable development in New Zealand

The focus of Measuring New Zealand’s Progress Using a Sustainable Development Approach: 2008 is to answer the question ‘How is New Zealand progressing towards or away from sustainable development?’. Answers to this question provide a broader and more useful picture than the question ‘Is New Zealand sustainable?’.

There is no definitive answer to the question of New Zealand’s progress towards or away from sustainable development, as we all have different values and place differing levels of importance on the different aspects of sustainable development. However, we can measure whether changes in different aspects are positive or negative in relation to sustainable development.

We selected a set of indicators to measure environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainable development (based on Statistics New Zealand’s Framework for Measuring Sustainable Development, 2009). We identified a target trend for each indicator, to show the desired direction of change according to our principles of sustainable development (these are listed in the chapter ‘Defining principles’ in Part C).

We used data from a variety of sources to provide results for each indicator. By comparing changes in the data between 1988 and 2008 (or over the time period available) we identified a trend for each indicator.

The trends show either a positive, negative, or neutral change in relation to the target trends for sustainable development. The target trends and actual trends are identified by the following symbols:

 Sustainable development trends key.

Note that a red cross, for example, does not mean that the result is unsustainable. Rather, a red cross shows that there has been negative change over the time period in relation to the relevant principles.

Snapshot from key indicators

The following four tables give a snapshot of how New Zealand is progressing in relation to sustainable development. This high-level summary is based on results from 16 key indicators, which are representative of the 15 topics and 85 indicators in this report. Detailed analysis of all the indicators is provided in part B.

The key indicators were selected on the basis that they represent a spread across topics and target dimensions, and there is adequate data available to assess the changes over a reasonable period of time. The key indicators are grouped according to four broad concepts:

  • meeting needs – how well do we live?
  • fairness – how well are resources distributed?
  • efficiency – how efficiently are we using our resources?
  • preserving resources – what are we leaving behind for our children?

How well do we live?

Sustainable development means that everyone is entitled to meet their needs through the accumulation and use of resources. We have selected four key indicators (related to health, employment, income, and crime) to present a picture of the extent to which people’s basic needs are being met, which also affects their well-being (see table A1).

The indicators relate to:

  • employment – unemployment rate
  • income – real gross national disposable income (RGNDI) per person
  • health – health expectancy at birth
  • crime – rate of death from assault.

Table A1
How well do we live – summary of key indicators

 How well do we live - summary of key indicators table.

Over the periods analysed, people living in New Zealand have generally enjoyed good lifestyles with increasing health expectancy at birth and a steady increase in their material well-being. RGNDI, a measure of material well-being, is the income available to New Zealanders after international investment income flows have been taken into account. This is important for a nation with a large external trading sector. However, unemployment, which is important from an economic and social perspective, has fluctuated. The impact of serious crime has decreased.

How well are resources distributed?

Sustainable development means that important resources such as income, education, health, and clean air are fairly distributed or accessible. We have selected three key indicators (related to education and income) to present a picture of how well the distribution of resources is meeting peoples’ needs and affecting their well-being (see table A2).

The indicators relate to:

  • education – access to early childhood education, by ethnicity
  • income – income inequality
  • income – population with low incomes.

Table A2
How well are resources distributed – summary of key indicators

 How well are resources distributed - summary of key indicators table.

Over the periods analysed, the disparities of access to early childhood education among different ethnic groups have narrowed. The differences in income between those on high incomes and those on low incomes have widened, while the number of household recognised as having low incomes has risen.

How efficiently are we using our resources?

Sustainable development means that our production and consumption of resources must be managed in a way that minimises the impact on the environment. We have selected three key indicators (related to atmosphere, energy, and work) to present a picture of how efficiently we are using our resources, see table A3.

The indicators relate to:

  • atmosphere – greenhouse gas intensity of the economy
  • energy – energy intensity of the economy
  • work and skills – labour productivity.

For the first two of these indicators ‘intensity of the economy’ is measured in relation to real gross domestic product (GDP); that is, whether greenhouse gases, or use of energy, has grown faster or slower than the economy.

Table A3
How efficiently are we using our resources – summary of key indicators

 How efficiently are we using our resources - summary of key indicators table.

Over the periods analysed, the use of energy relative to economic activity decreased. Although total emissions of greenhouse gases increased, the economy grew at a faster rate, meaning fewer emissions were produced per unit of GDP.

The labour force was more productive, meaning more output per worker (and implying an increase in the efficiency and competitiveness of the economy).

What are we leaving behind for our children?

Sustainable development means preserving economic, environmental, and social resources not only for the present generation but also for future generations. We have selected six key indicators (related to biodiversity, atmosphere, water, education, economic capital, and culture) to present a picture of what we are leaving behind for future generations (see table A4).

The indicators relate to:

  • biodiversity – distribution of selected native species
  • atmosphere – net greenhouse gas emissions
  • water – nitrogen in rivers and streams
  • education – educational attainment of the adult population
  • economic capital – real net stock of total assets per person
  • culture – speakers of te reo Māori.

Table A4
What are we leaving behind for our children – summary of key indicators

 What are we leaving behind for our children - summary of key indicators.

Water quality, a stable climate, and biodiversity are critical to New Zealand’s natural capital. Over the periods analysed, nitrogen levels in rivers and streams and net greenhouse gas emissions have increased, while the distribution of selected native species has decreased.

The net stock of total assets per person, a measure of New Zealand’s wealth through productive assets, has increased. Educational attainment of the adult population, a measure of human capital in the population, has also increased. However, the proportion of Māori speakers of te reo Māori, an aspect of culture which is unique to New Zealand, has decreased slightly.

Looking ahead

For the indicator analysis in part B, we aimed to have up to eight indicators for any one topic. This was not always possible, as in some cases the indicators did not align with the defining principles, or there was a lack of consistent long-term time series, or the overriding need for statistical soundness reduced the number below eight.

Readers are likely to have their own views as to what should have been included or to wonder why certain other indicators were not included. Accordingly, Statistics NZ welcomes feedback on the indicators used and suggestions for additional indicators for the future. Contact us by email at sustainable.development@stats.govt.nz.

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